When I heard the news about the Oregon shooting, my heart sank. Here we go again, I thought, followed by yet another heart drop when I realized how easily the word “again” had slid into that sentence.
I grew up less than 30 minutes from Newtown, CT, where an elementary school shooting rocked the nation. I can still remember the day I read that news, appearing on my local friends’ Facebook posts before it had even made the major headlines. It was devastating. I cried on the spot, and then again and again spontaneously for days after.
When the most recent shooting was reported I felt a familiar dark cloud creep over my heart. Each time our country suffers an attack like this I lose a little more hope in our people. But it did not rock me like that first one. Over the past few years these horrific events have become almost routine, and I could feel myself becoming numb to the reality of the tragedy.
Then posts began showing up on my social media feeds — people arguing against gun control, demanding their unfettered rights, and insulting the intelligence of those who held the opposing view.
And suddenly I found myself enraged. Not simply angry or upset or frustrated, but filled to the brim with pure, unbridled fury.
The strength of the feeling took me completely off-guard. I am a spiritual person, a meditative person, a peaceful person. I practice loving kindness in my everyday life, and I aim above all else to do no harm. I catch insects and release them outside. I eat plants, not animals. I defend the rights of even the most obtusely dogmatic to their beliefs and practices which represent, to them, the highest good — even when I vehemently disagree.
But to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” defenders I found myself faced with an uncontrollable impulse to scream obscenities so close to their ignorant faces that they would have to wipe my spit from their eyes.
Surprised by the level of my anger and the grief that quickly followed, I questioned why this event, this issue, was suddenly more than I could handle. Why this, when there are so many other tragedies and injustices happening in our world?
I must be a master at compartmentalizing, so good I even fooled myself.
Why was I so angry at those people who insist that, despite an increasing trend of school shootings, we change nothing?
Because — I am a teacher.
I teach seventh and eighth grade at a small Montessori school in the west suburbs of Chicago. I have ten students and a co-teacher with whom I spend every moment of every day in a little off-campus house that has been adapted as our school building. We have a front and a side door, the former with a series of deadlocks and the latter with a private access code. The front door stays locked at all times — no exceptions — unless I or my co-teacher open it. On the glass pane of that door is a sticker with a gun behind a bright red slash line. “This is a gun-free zone,” it tells all who enter, just in case there was any confusion about the place of weaponry at an institute of learning.
On our first day of school, after welcoming the kids, we settle into couches in the living room to draft our community agreement. This is when we decide how we will treat each other and ourselves for the remainder of the year. We discuss respect, we discuss compassion, we discuss trust.
Following this we talk about the basics: where to put your backpacks, how to organize your cubbies, when lunch happens and how long you have to eat. We run through what to do if there is a fire, where to go for shelter if there is a tornado, and how to save yourself (always yourself first) if a madman breaks into our building and attempts to kill you.
That last one is my least favorite. I dread it every year. I wish we could put it off, not sour the joy of the first day and the beauty of the preceding group work with such warnings of terror. But it would do them a disservice to wait. They need to know, from day one, what our procedures are.
Before I taught middle school, I taught primary — students aged 2.5-6 years old. I have had the experience of rushing my kids into the bathroom or the closet, telling them with my face and my body language that this is serious, that they must be still and silent, and yet trying with all of my might not to scare them. I have felt the rush of panic that, even though I am sure this is a drill, still runs through my body when the door handle rumbles from the outside. I have held their shaking bodies and explained that we practice just in case, reassuring them that they are safe. And I have looked into their tiny faces and known, without a moment’s hesitation, that I would do anything and everything in my power to keep them that way.
This is not how it works at the middle school.
Being in a building alone, my co-teacher and I run all of our drills. We are the fire alarm. We are the tornado siren. We are the lockdown command.
Without warning, I must go to the front door, open it, and yell “LOCKDOWN!” as loud as I can. My students scramble to find a place to hide and a door to lock. In one room, right off the entryway, there is no door to barricade, and our kids climb into the fireplace, crouch behind bookshelves, and flatten themselves against walls.
Then, without waiting more than a moment, it is my job to stomp across hallways, to pound on closed doors, to violently rattle handles and roughly demand to be let in.
It is my kids’ job to stay silent, to stay hidden, and to Never. Let. Me. In.
When we talk about the drill after, my students always have the same question:
“But what about YOU?”
They know that if something like this were to god-forbid ever happen, it would be me answering the door. It would be me shouting the alarm. It would be me facing the danger first, head on.
And despite the sound of my heart breaking, a wave of mama-bear-like-courage washes over me. I tell them that if it were to happen (knock on wood, always knocking on wood), I would do everything I could possibly do to buy them time to get to safety.
I am telling my students I would die for them.
I am telling children who are not even my own that I would lay down my life in the effort to save theirs.
And what’s more, I am telling them that it is my job. That I signed up for this. As though I were a gardener pulling weeds.
The job I signed up for, in reality, was to touch the hearts of children and to shape their minds. To teach them how to navigate the difficult process of growing up. To coach them into being good people with good morals making good decisions. To encourage them to be kind, to be compassionate, to live their lives with mutual respect for those around them.
And my kids? They signed up to be students. To learn, to grow, to challenge themselves, to surpass their own expectations.
And yet here they are potential victims, and I their potential guard.
I do not have the words to say how much anger I feel over that truth. How, though I would never abandon this position for the world, I cannot believe that I am here. That we are here.
I do not, cannot understand those who are unwilling to give an inch to gain a mile. I will not listen to those who say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
No, my dears — people kill people with guns.
I am not asking you to hand over your hunting rifle. I’m not asking you to give up your pocket pistol. I am asking you to agree that no one in our society needs access to multi-round, rapid-fire, military-grade weapons. I am asking you to minimize the damage.
I understand that there will always be violence and insanity in our world. But that does not mean we have to offer grenades to those who wish to perpetuate it.
I am willing to die for my students. That is a reality I had to face the morning of the Newtown massacre, and it is a reality I have even come to accept with a resigned sort of peace. These children are not my blood, but I would shed mine to save theirs.
So to those of you whose families I would bleed for but who still insist things are just fine how they are — I invite you to come take a walk in my shoes.
Silence a closet full of crying three-year-olds who do not understand why they are huddled on each others’ laps inside a locked, darkened room.
Pound on doors and rattle handles as you train your twelve-year-olds to react calmly in the face of terror.
Look a child’s parent in the eye with the silent agreement that you will put yourself in front of that bullet, no matter the cost.
Then come to talk to me about gun control. Then tell me how important it is that you have the option to do whatever you damn well please, because America.
But not before. Not a moment before.